National Honey Bee Day is Saturday, August 19!
The past decade has seen sharp declines in many bee populations around the globe. For those of us living in urban centers, this may seem like a distant concern. However, bees are indispensable allies in our food system, responsible for about a third of what we eat every day. To celebrate National Honey Bee Day, let’s take a closer look at these amazing creatures.
All hail the Queen!
Honey bees live in highly social and cooperative colonies with workloads strictly divided between the inhabitants. That’s an organized workforce of tens of thousands of creatures, all doing their job to help sustain the colony. This industriousness and organization inspire some familiar phrases, such as “drones,” “queen bee” and “busy as a bee.” What are we really saying when we use bee metaphors?
- Drones — These male bees are responsible for passing the colony’s genetic material to future generations by mating with queens from other colonies. These bees are stingless and make no honey. Today, we use the word drone to describe someone who does repetitive or monotonous tasks. In technology, a drone is an unpiloted aircraft used to do work that is dull or dangerous.
- Worker bees — Busy worker bees are females that are not sexually developed. They spend their lives moving from one set of responsibilities to another based on their age, effectively getting a promotion every few weeks. Young worker bees perform tasks in the center of the hive, tending to the queen and the brood. Older bees work farther away from the queen and brood, emerging as the foraging bees we see visiting flowers.
- Queens — Most hives have only one. She is a fertile female, and her job is to lay eggs. Despite her title, she does not truly rule the hive. The worker bees act collectively to ensure the survival of the hive. They were actually responsible for selecting the queen, by feeding her a special superfood called “royal jelly” when she was just a little larva. The nutrients in royal jelly allow larvae to mature sexually.
Happy Honey Bee Day! Dance like bees are watching.
While each bee has a job, no single bee could survive on its own without the support of the colony. This cooperative system means that the entire colony functions as a superorganism, as though it was actually a single animal. The worker bees fan their wings to ventilate the hive, which then inhales and exhales about the same volume of air as a housecat. A colony that grows too big and crowded divides itself into two in an elaborate process known as swarming. Natural selection occurs on the level of the colony, not on the individual bee. Bees are so interconnected; it’s no wonder their hives are so sensitive to human interference.
This level of organization isn’t achieved by instinct or hormones alone. Honeybees have remarkable powers of communication. They give each other directions to the best feeding spots by performing a “waggle dance,” accurately describing the direction and distance of pollen sources miles from the hive. In one of science’s cuter discoveries, honey bees also make a “whoop, whoop!” noise when they are startled.
A very long arrangement
Given how important bees are to the human food supply, it’s not surprising that our interest in them coincides with the rise of agriculture roughly 12,000 years ago. Bees pollinated ancient crops and people harvested their honey as a valuable sweetener and used beeswax for many household purposes. Honey bees held prominent places in the mythology of many of the ancient civilizations; mythology from the Greeks, Egyptians, Central and South Africans and aboriginal Australians all honors the honey bee. A common theme across many of these cultures was that bees were messengers between our world and the spirit realm.
Bees are as integral to our food supply now as they were all those millennia ago. They are directly responsible for a third of the food we consume. Bees improve the appearance and taste of crops, and research shows they also help increase the amount that can be grown at a given time, improving yields by up to 71%.
Bees around the globe are in deep trouble. Populations have been in decline for decades, with a phenomenon known as “colony collapse disorder” (pretty much what it sounds like) appearing in North America in 2006. While there are likely many contributing factors to the decline, there is one common denominator: humans.
Humans have a tendency to move creatures beyond their natural range, introducing them to new continents and new diseases. We destroy valuable habitat to house our vast numbers. In the past century, the rise of industrial agriculture has been devastating for insect populations including honey bees. The practice of monocropping — planting a single crop on hundreds of acres of farmland — creates a food desert for pollinators outside of the brief window of springtime blossoms.
Chemical pesticides also wreak havoc on bees’ health, either by outright killing them or by making them just sick enough to fall to another threat. Even our home gardens can be inhospitable to bees. Pristine landscapes and flowerless lawns offer little food or protection to pollinators, and the chemicals we use around our property can be just as harmful to insects as their agricultural counterparts.
In a tragic twist of irony, scientists in Germany are currently at work on a genetically modified superbee. The introduction of a GMO bee could be the nail in the coffin for natural populations, with consequences reaching into our own food supply. It’s taken 80 million years for the modern bee to evolve into the creatures we see today. With its complex social structure and ingenious communication methods, the bee is one of the most fascinating creatures on the planet.
Get busy like a bee
But it’s not over yet! There are many ways we can all help the precious honey bee. We can reject chemical-laden food crops, opting instead for organic and non-GMO choices. We can support local, small-scale farmers operating organic, transitional or regenerative systems. We can keep pesticides out of our yards, and leave some dedicated wild spaces in the garden, piled with branches and leaves so wild bees can survive the winter. And we can plant a vibrant mixture of flowers so they’ll have something to eat when they emerge.
Any (or all!) of these actions is a step in the right direction.